Octavia Randolph

Octavia Randolph is the author of the Circle of Ceridwen Saga set in 9th century England and Scandinavia. The series, which currently includes seven books, follows the central character, Ceridwen, the orphaned daughter of a Saxon nobleman, through encounters with invading Danes and Saxon chieftains during this age of upheaval.

The first book, The Circle of Ceridwen, begins with the seven kingdoms of Angel-land before they were united into one England by Ælfred the Great. Books two and three, Ceridwen of Kilton and The Claiming, take place in England for the most part, while the fourth and fifth volumes, Hall of Tyr and Tindr, are set on the Baltic island of Gotland. Silver Hammer, Golden Cross, the sixth book in the series, moves between the two locations. Randolph’s latest book, Sidroc the Dane, is set mostly in Denmark and tells the story of the childhood of one of the main characters.  Randolph has also written two novellas, Ride, a retelling of the Lady Godiva, and The Tale of Melkorka, from an Icelandic saga, and a biographical novel about the art and social critic John Ruskin called Light, Descending.

Maggie Fry: What was your inspiration to write a book set in ninth century England and Scandinavia? How did you start?

Octavia Randolph: The entire sags for me is a cultural autobiography. I am interested in what made England, and notice I make the distinction between Great Britain, the United Kingdom and England. We’re talking of England geographically and conceptually. What made these people rise to be the greatest world power? There’s Ælfred, just twenty-three years of age, who watches kingdom after kingdom topple until his is the only kingdom standing. This young man who thought himself destined for the church and not for warfare because he had four older brothers, suddenly found himself thrust into this situation and he must uphold what’s left of Englishness and did it extraordinarily well.  It took a tremendous amount of silver. Ælfred and his brothers literally paid the Danes off with 24,000 actual pounds of silver to cease and desist, leave us alone. And it was never enough. The Danes were always forming and reforming; you could not make a deal with one chieftain that would be honored by the next. Because Ælfred was the tactician and the inspiring person that he was, he was able to craft a lasting peace with Guthrum to allow trade in both areas. It was a partitioned society, but there could be trade and the beginnings of what formed the final big, bloom of English culture until the catastrophe of 1066. So yes, it’s a fascinating story.

M.F.: Your books are meticulous in their historical accuracy and detailed descriptions. You have obviously done a lot of research.

O.R.: As a little girl, I loved looking at anything Anglo-Saxon. All the artifacts fascinated me. The Sutton Hoo treasure, those buckles with the garnets and the carnelians, the horse trappings. There was something about the physical artifacts of the era that made it so visceral to me. And beautiful objects inspire me: the hand-carved combs, skillfully wrought swords, and gemmed goblets of the world of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga. I’ve studied Anglo-Saxon and Norse runes and learned to spin with a drop spindle.  In 1999 on a huge research tour of all of Scandinavia, I found Gotland, my spiritual home, and that was why in The Claiming Sidroc and Ceridwen end up on Gotland. I’m so happy that, almost Twenty years later, I am finally able to move there myself and make it my permanent home.

I feel a responsibility to adhere to historical veracity because history is so little taught today. We rely on our novels, television shows, and films to an almost frightening extent to inform us about the past. And because I believe that fact is more fascinating and thrilling than fiction, I am happy to use a rigid historical framework. There are plenty of interstices to allow me to weave my characters within what has come down to us as received history.

M.F.: Did you get to England?

O.R.: Yes. Seeing things in books and early exposure to early English poetry was wonderful. The cadence of the language spoke to me. I love this and I want to get in there and there was so much scope for imagining. We are so lucky to have the written material that we do have. I deal with two extremely powerful cultures, the Norse and the Saxons, who had terrific oral poetry traditions. But we have so much more on the English side because the Norse only had runes, painstakingly carved into wood and stone with knives and chisels, whereas the Anglo-Saxons had scribes who could write in both Latin and Old English on parchment with readily made-up ink, and so, we have so much material.

M.F.: And what we do have written down about the Norse was recorded hundreds of years later.

O.R.: Yes, that’s right, Snorri Sturulson, and he died in 1241. We don’t even know the name of the Svear, the Swedish king, in the ninth century who made an agreement with Gotland. We know the day on which Ælfred died — October 27, 899 — because there were scribes to record things, but there are enormous gaps in Scandinavian history because there was no easy way to record anything. These two conflicting cultures were literally blood cousins, but the earlier Christianization of the English gave them the gift of literacy.

M.F.: You use some actual historical figures, for instance Ælfred, but many of your characters are created by you. Are they based on historical people?

O.R.: I would say that they are archetypes. First of all, every name I use is an attested name. I don’t ever create a name, whether it’s Norse or Angle or Saxon. I never use a name that I can’t point to and say, “Yes, there really was an individual named this way.” For instance, Ceridwen, who we know was a half Welsh and half Angle girl, raised by the Benedictines, was taught to read and write. That is a believable scenario because we know that some women, like Ælfred’s mother, were literate, and she was responsible for teaching her four sons to read. I look at certain archetypes I find in history and say, “Yes, it’s alright that my characters behave this way because I can find other examples in history that behave similarly.” There was a great jarl named Sidroc. That was fun because the moment I saw that name, many years ago, I loved it and thought, “What a tremendous name!” It had so much strength, such potency.

M.F.: Your books are self-published. Why did you make that decision and what have your experiences been?

O.R.: I never set out to self-publish because when I started writing Circle of Ceridwen Saga book one, it was 1991 and there was no such thing as self-publishing. There were traditional publishers and there were vanity presses. But I did go the traditional route, and when I completed that first manuscript, I was able to place it with an agent, who had no success whatsoever in placing it with a publishing house. That went on through a couple of years and a couple of agents. Finally, in 1998, when I first had an author website–I am very proud and happy that it is the twentieth anniversary of Octavia.net now because there are very few authors who had websites twenty years ago. One of the reasons I wanted a website is first because I wanted to share all of my research, and so I wrote scores of mini essays on Anglo-Saxon and Viking life, and medieval life in general. I used the website as a dissemination source for people who were interested in the era. Before the advent of Wikipedia I got a tremendous number of hits. There was not a lot of information out there.

The other thing I did in 1998 was to take a page out of Charles Dickens’s book and publish serially. So jointly with my then agent, we thought if you can show New York publishers that you’ve got a platform and followers now, that may sway their opinion.

M.B.: That’s what authors are often told.

O.R.: It actually does not matter at all to traditional publishers. There have been many instances of people with enormous platforms, yet traditional publishers will not look at them or only look at them in a specific way. For instance, [they will only consider] print only deals because they don’t want the bloom off of the rose. They want to mold something themselves. Anyway, nothing kept happening. Fortunately, I kept writing the saga and pretty much had given up the idea of ever being published. But I needed to continue the story for my own sake, so I completed the trilogy. By then the world of publishing was changing, and in 2008 Amazon introduced the Kindle. It revolutionized things because it made it easier for people to self-publish.

I did not put the trilogy on Amazon until 2012. When I did, I was fortunate enough to have a body of work — three initial novels — and that was an important leg up because people could move from one book to the next and reach an almost immediate audience. It proved to me that I did have an audience and potentially quite a large one.

Armed with the fact that the books were selling well, I felt confident to continue the saga. There are now seven books, all under my own imprint. When I look at the entire dramatic arc of the characters in history that I am covering, I foresee potentially ten books or more. I am happy that I persevered, I believed in my talent, I believed in my power to communicate a good story, but also I was able to do this because finally technology caught up to the point where I could, in fact, reach the audience and bypass the gatekeepers.

M.F.: When did you found Pyewacket Press?

O.R.: In 2012, when I first published on Kindle, I wanted an imprint name. After Kindle, I very quickly got on Nook, iBooks, which is now called Apple Books, Kobo, which is a Canadian retailer which sells e-books primarily in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Europe. Then print books followed and audio books. I have done all of that under the aegis of Pyewacket Press. I have used the name of my beloved little Bengal cat since 2012.

M.F.: One of the issues with self-publishing is that anybody can put anything out there. How do you distinguish yourself from others?

O.R.: The figure was just released that a million books were self-published in the last twelve months. A million! That’s astounding. Discoverability was always difficult, but it is more challenging than ever to differentiate yourself and to be discovered in such a crowded market. Yet there are people knowing tremendous success all the time, even in the most crowded markets, because if you are writing thrillers or romance, you are already writing to a huge existing market of voracious readers who are great consumers of books. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be in a crowded market. You just really have to keep high standards because you are writing for readers who have a lot to compare you against. But I think any dedicated and talented writer can make their way today. It just takes tremendous perseverance.

M.F.: Do you think self-publishing is more fan-driven than traditional publishing?

O.R.: Absolutely! In traditional publishing you have to have an and an acquiring and a marketing and acquisitions staff who all love your work. They have to become your fans, but that’s a fairly small team. Whereas if you can release your books in multiple markets around the world, in whatever language you’re supporting, you can get a much broader base, and those are the people who actually buy your book. So, yes, it’s highly fan-driven but every writer needs to have fans. And those are people who endorse and are passionate about your work.

M.F.: What obstacles have you encountered during the self-publishing process?

O.R.: Technically it can be pretty daunting. The actual publishing itself is simple; Amazon has a downloadable free guide that walks you through the steps of formatting your Kindle book. It’s more technical to set up a print book on Create Space or Ingram, but it can be done. I think the supporting technical roles of managing the business side of advertising and promotion are very time-consuming and can be difficult. Be prepared to hire the best talent possible, whether it’s for your cover or your audio book. There’s always a way around technical or time limitations, but you need to be strategic with your resources and invest in yourself, to understand that the most important part of starting a career is to put out a quality book and then to promote it properly. I don’t care if you are eating beans; it’s worth it. Seeing those initial royalties roll in and realizing you are communicating with people, connecting with people who love your work, then it’s worth every sacrifice you’ve made.

M.F.: I would assume the good part of self-publishing is the ability to control the entire process.

O.R.: I have many friends who have been traditionally published and have been driven half mad by editors, book designers and others. Even though you are going it alone and you have full veto rights on things, that responsibility is an awesome one, and hopefully you are relying on the judgment of people you trust to guide you. Yes, you do have that control. You have the control over where your books are going to be, how they will be presented, how they will be marketed, and it could mean quite a bit of trial and error because you’re foregoing the expertise traditional publishers bring, but you are able  to make one-on-one connections with independent bookstores and to make those marketing decisions as to how you are going to present your book to the public, and that’s enormous. It’s an enormous responsibility, but it is also an enormous freedom.

M.F.: Is there anything you’d like to add?

O.R.: I’m often asked to advise people who are starting out. I would say, obviously, write the best book that you can. That’s really the most important thing. Don’t rush to publication. Make sure it’s a book that you love and are proud of every word.

The second bit of advice that I give is that it is enormously helpful to have a body of work. If you have two or three books, it’s huge when you are publishing under your own imprint. If you offer book one at a low price because you want people to be introduced to it, or you’re offering it for free with a sign-up on your website, then you want to be able to give people something so when they love that book, they will be able to go on and buy books two and three at full price. If you have more than one book to begin with, that’s just marvelous. You don’t want to come out with a great book and have people say, “Oh, I love this author,” and then there’s nowhere to go. Obviously, I write series and it’s the same group of characters moving through time and space. That in itself is addictive for the reader and you want the story to continue, but even if you’re an author who’s writing maybe about an unconnected group of characters, but you form an audience in book one, they are going to want to see your next book. If you can have two or three books before you begin, that’s a wonderful advantage for you.

The third thing that I love to tell people, and I can’t say it often enough, is that, sadly, we have brought up a generation of readers who think books should be free. Free or cheap. It’s so important, and I say this over and over again, if you do not value your own talent, do not expect anyone else to do so. I’m always encouraging people to price their books appropriately within their genre. My books are expensive because people who read historical fiction will pay a bit more for the quality of the material, and I just feel that people who are going out with perma-free books are adding to the problem and not the solution. It’s alright to offer book one for free in exchange for something like building your email list, but I do feel very strongly that one must value one’s own talent and as quickly as possible build people up to paying full price. Look at an author in your genre whom you very much admire and whose work is similar to your own and price yourself accordingly. Hopefully, it is very close if not at what their Kindle book is selling for. Again, I feel we have to stop this. It should be a rare thing to have a free book. It should be a treat. We wouldn’t have the number of books out there clogging people’s Kindles if there was just more discernment from authors themselves. Much of it is desperation and driven by lack of self-worth. If you’ve written a good book, it is worthy and you are worthy of being well-paid for it.

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Maggie Fry has spent the last thirty years on a small hobby farm in northwestern Pennsylvania, where she raised sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits and ducks, in addition to rescuing cats and dogs. When she wasn’t playing in the dirt, she wrote freelance articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as teaching courses in writing and public speaking at the university level. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College and currently teaches in the Communications Department at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania.

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The Forester’s Soup

I should have been frightened that July afternoon when the Gestapo came to my grandfather’s Bavarian home, and if I’d known what my Opa knew, I would have been. Our benefactor, Graf von Schreiber, had been shot for treason. He’d attempted to assassinate our Führer. Yesterday. With a bomb. But I didn’t know.

My father was a faithful soldier. My Opa kept me safe while Papa was gone. The sounds of war, even when they neared, snagged on the dark bowers of the forest that surrounded our cottage. Snug amid the spruce trees, there was little for a ten-year-old girl to fear in that warm July of 1944.

Still, these Gestapo were to be respected. I gawked at them from the kitchen doorway. My grandfather shooed me away. When his attention was once again diverted, I moved back to where I could see and hear.

Two of the men were my papa’s height, but their uniforms, the color of dehydrated moss, were different than my father’s tree-bark gray. The third man, the tallest, had a deep voice and a pretty face and his left fingers tap-tapped on his thigh, busy as a hungry woodpecker. The combination almost made me giggle, but Opa gave me that look of his. The one that stopped me right where I stood.

Opa offered the men chairs, but they remained standing.

“Will you be staying the night?” he asked.

“No. We’ve work to do,” the pretty man said.

“You’ll have supper though?”

The pretty man met my grandfather’s gaze for a long moment before turning toward his men. He motioned toward me and then pointed at the stairs that led to our bedrooms. One of the men walked to the stairs. The other toward me.

I shrank into the kitchen and backed against the wall. The man ignored me. Stooping over, he looked beneath the sink. I scraped at a grass stain on my dress. I’d been digging up rain worms beneath the forest’s trees. I’d found three, each longer than my arm. Opa said we’d fish with them after supper.

The man in our kitchen looked in the pantry and stomped the floors. He went out the back door. I followed and stood on the step while he circled the wood pile. I picked up a stick and poked at pungent dirt in a wooden bucket. My worms were tunneling in there. Later I’d cut them up for fish bait. The man leaned toward the forest as though listening to whispers. If he heard anything, it would’ve surprise me. I hadn’t seen deer in over a year and I’ve never seen Gämse with their funny hooked horns.

He walked back to where I waited. I asked, “Do you want to see my riesige würmer?”

Nein,” he said, pushing past.

Annoyed he didn’t want to see my worms, I followed him. I stood in the room with the policemen and my grandfather, arms crossed and feet planted.

The pretty man paced. Opa and the other two men sized each other up and decided what could and couldn’t be talked about. They spoke about papa so far away, about the war and rations. I kicked at a warped floorboard and watched dried mud fall from my shoes. We’d had such fun on our hike this morning. Usually Opa and I walked alone, and he’d point out grouse and ptarmigan. Today though, my friends from the village came with us, and—

Hands slapped down on my shoulder jolting me from my thoughts. The pretty man moved me aside. He kicked my warped board once, twice. It didn’t budge.

“Herr Hoffman,” he said, turning from me and the board. “Do you know Graf von Schreiber?”

“Me? No. I’m only a Förster.”

“You are a family friend?”

Opa laughed. “An old man like me? Friends with a count? No. I’m friends with the trees.”

What a strange answer! Just this morning the Countess von Shreiber had summoned Opa. We’d guided her boys—my friends—and their Great Uncle Max on a mountain hike. Oskar and Will rat-a-tatted machine guns made of broken tree limbs. I hid among the evergreens and spied upon my Opa. I heard Uncle Max make Opa promise to find Graf von Shreiber’s boys, which made no sense because they weren’t even pretending to hide. And oh, they were making such noise.

So now I said, “Großvater, our hike this morning—”

“Rosa. Seen. Not heard.” Opa’s voice quavered. The kitchen man smirked. Perhaps he thought Opa was afraid, but I knew better. That tremble was anger. I’d forgotten the rules. We never talked about other families. I kicked at the floorboard again.

The pretty man studied my messy clothes, his smile fierce and lovely. “You hiked this morning? Alone?”

“I walked with Opa and… and I dug up worms. The big ones. Do you want to see them?”

The man’s smile widened. He patted my head and nodded at Opa. “We’ll sit.”

Opa beckoned. “Come here, Rosa.” I moved to his side and he squeezed my hand. “You must make these busy men supper.”

“But we were going—”

“But nothing. Cook up that catfish we caught this morning.” He turned to the three men. “We don’t have much, but it is yours.”

I stared at Opa, my mouth slack.

“Don’t be rude. Go now.”

I snapped my mouth shut. I wanted to tell Opa we had no catfish. We had mustard seed, and cabbage, and some early apples. There were last fall’s Juniper berries in a jar in the pantry. They made everything taste better. And just today, after parting ways with our friends, we bought two eggs and a bit of milk in the village. I’d never made spaetzle, but I could try. Catfish though? That we didn’t have.

“Rosa, go.”

I scurried to the kitchen.

Behind me the pretty man said. “Herr Hoffman. You go too.”

In the kitchen I laid out our ingredients for my grandfather. I made the broth, rich and sweet, and added potatoes for body. Opa mixed the dough and added spaetzle one by one to the simmering liquid. He and I ate a bowlful and savored each spoonful.

“Get that catfish now, Rosa. They’re in the bucket outside. I think the two larger ones will do. We’ll use the other later.”

I giggled, finally understanding. “But Opa, why?”

“Someday, you’ll know why. You’ll know why these men, why this day. Right now, no more questions.”

While the men smoked their cigarettes we washed those worms carefully, as though they were new potatoes and we’d be eating the skins. As the men drank from silver flasks and poured over local maps we chopped our worms into little pieces and added them to the broth. The men talked in whispers while the soup simmered a long, long time. My grandfather tasted the wurmsuppe, and said. “More juniper berries I think.” I crushed them and stirred them in and he teased, “Sehr gut. Take a bite, Rosa.”

Our visitors suspected nothing, although the pretty man commented, “One can never fully hide the taste of muck when catfish is caught during July’s heat.” Still, they emptied their bowls.

After daylight gave way to new-moon dark, the men stole past the bucket with its one large worm and taking the path that led to our friends’ village, they disappeared beneath the bowers of the forest.

So, I ask you, what was there for a ten-year-old girl to fear that torrid July in 1944, with juniper berries for bitter soup, and spruce trees for hiding, and Opa to keep me safe?

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Barbara Rath writes prose poetry and fiction in the dark hours that surround full-time technical work. She has been published in the online journals, The Birds We Piled Loosely and The Scarlet Leaf Review (August 2018)She is an MFA in Writing candidate at the University of New Hampshire, holds memberships with Boston’s Grub Street and the New Hampshire Writers’ Project (NHWP), and just finished a stint as host for NHWP’s craft and publication webinars. Ms. Rath’s writing journey is chronicled at http://barbararath.com.

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And Anathema

I always think fondly of my old master, Hubrecht of Ain, on cold clear evenings such as this. Evenings when the pall of smoke from a thousand cook stoves hangs pungent in the air and the black velvet sky with its endless spattering of stars seems not far off but mere inches above our heads. The old ones believed that the via Lactia, the Milky Way, was caused by droplets of milk spilled from the breasts of the goddess Hera. They had wondrous imaginations, those ancients.

I remember how Hubrecht’s deep voice rang in the Observatorium, that chilly stone cupola in the high Alps where we passed so many nights. There I sat in darkness as rich and black as the soot from a tallow candle and scratched numbers on waxed panels, using a sharp stylus tipped with the finger bone of a mouse. We could not rely on ink because it would freeze solid, so the ancient tabula rasa had to do. And he, Hubrecht, would stand still as death, his yellowed eye pressed unblinking against a bubble of glass at the small end of his far-seeing tube, as he muttered numbers and degrees to me, all the while ooohhing at each new marvel.

Today, Hubrecht seems like a figure from legend, a giant of a man from a more heroic age. It brings up my hot-blood to recall the ways those priests hurt him in the name of faith, humiliated him. He was not a mountebank or a necromancer but a man of science, a pillar of wisdom.

Above us in those Alpine latitudes was a sky exploding with stars, crisscrossed with bright streaks of meteors. Some nights I dreamed that I could travel to those stars, as one would take a mail boat to the next town. With unbelievable clarity, I saw a stout vessel, a colossal metal shaft rising on a column of fire, bound for the heavens. When I told my dreams to the master he drew back his hand to strike me. Then his wrinkled face cracked and, a miracle, he laughed and nodded. Instead of a blow, he patted me gently on the head. Perhaps he had dreamed of this too? We never spoke of it again.

Now, as I open his notebooks, some parts of them in my own hand, I am warmed by the old man’s wit, his scholarship and his crabby complaining. We shall miss him forever. On a page with a torn edge, he writes:

It is a structure of such heavenly magnificence that it eludes description. A Ring! Gigantic, incredible. Surrounding the planet Saturnus! Each night subtending a slightly different angle; its movement so small as to be unknowable without the finest markings on the quadrant.

If this ring truly exists, it will overturn a thousand years of false astronomy. The great crystalline spheres of the Ptolemaic sky will shatter like a drunkard’s jeroboam. And even better, won’t those whoreson Jesuits scream like they’ve been scalded—the rogues.

Here, at the perfect center of a 1000 cubit square, even one candle is forbidden because its glow will confound and dim our sight, much as octopodiae stain clear water with their ink.

Night after night I fix myself in place, gazing through this brazen tube, its greater glass and its lesser in perfect conjunction with mine own eye. Here I stand, seeing farther than any man who has ever lived, Popes included. Seeing into the very heavens, perhaps into the mind of great God himself.

After a lifetime of pondering the changes in the seasons, the puzzling rise and fall of the ocean’s tides, the slow aging of rocks, the alchemy of water as it thickens into ice, the flight of birds large and small, I have been given a gift beyond price, a treasure. Even the sharp needles in my knees and old elbows cannot dim my great joy. I must clench my fist to warm it and to keep from shaking the tube.

I was thought a fool as a boy. And I have been called a madman more than once. But they had to treat me differently after I taught the Duke of Parma how to aim his cannons. Now in my dotage, I shall have my triumph. No one shall gainsay my labors, deny my result, my Saturnus. My place, my glory….

Here he breaks off writing. And I know why—for I stood next to him. At that moment the mossy-cheeked ‘prentice, Guilliam, no more than twelve years old, ran into the dome of the observatorium, his eyes wide with horror, his clothes torn. Blood redder than Mars ran down his face from a deep cut in the forehead. When he saw our master, he stopped and screamed.

“Run my lord… the Inquisition!”

How I wept as they took Hubrecht. How I ached from the beating I received defending him. He shouted to me in coded Latin to save the tube, his precious far-seeing tube. Of course

I did. The next entry in his notebooks is almost three years later. And the hand which writes it shakes, badly. They tortured him, beat him. He did not speak a word, would not confess or recant his science until, cruelest of all, they arranged that he should not be able to see the night sky.

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Gregory Von Dare is a writer and dramatist specializing in forward-leaning theatre and fiction, often with a humorous or ironic twist. He attended Chicago City College and the University of Illinois. While living in Los Angeles, he worked for Universal Studios, Disney, Armed Forces Radio and Fox Sports. Recently, his fiction appeared on the Soft Cartel, Out of the Gutter, 50 Word Stories, Rejected Manuscripts, Silent Motorist, and Horror Tree websites. One of his mystery short stories will be published in print this fall by Flame Tree Press in England. Greg is an Affiliate Member of Mystery Writers of America. He now lives outside Chicago where certain people will never find him.

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Women’s March on Versailles

‘Cécile, Cécile!’ Victoire’s voice sounded more like a whisper instead of a shout. The roars of the women who had gathered on the market place reigned over the usual tones that governed Paris. Vendors muttered into each other’s ears rather than yelling the latest prices of cabbages and onions. The clicking of horses’ hoofs on the cobbles was buried underneath the clanging bells of the nearby Sainte-Marguerite church.

‘Cécile!’ Victoire shouted again while the woman next to her yelled that they must march to the city hall before going to Versailles. The king would listen if they had weapons.

Victoire tried to remember when she had last felt her sister’s soft hand holding her own dry, cracked skin. The child had been standing next to her when she had accused the baker’s wife of hoarding grain to drive up the prices. Twelve sous! For bread that was blackened, hard enough to hammer every nail back into the crumbled walls of the Bastille. Then Cécile had been playing with a worn-out doll on the pavement while Victoire manoeuvred underneath the red parasols of a café, gulping down someone else’s wine. She could still taste the watered-down flavour of red grapes and cherries on the tip of her tongue. Victoire remembered going back to the baker’s shop, Cécile holding Victoire’s hand, hiding behind a group of outraged water-carriers, waiting until the baker’s wife would make a mistake. Cécile had wanted to say something, but Victoire had shushed her, and when the well-fed woman was about to blunder, Cécile was gone.

‘Have you seen a girl?’ Victoire asked a thin woman carrying a bundle of firewood on her back. ‘She’s nine, grey skirt, ginger-brown hair, missing all her front teeth except one.’ The woman shook her head.

The newly formed national guard whistled and clapped when the market women began their march towards the Place de Grève. Vendors started to load their wares into wagons.

Victoire looked inside an abandoned carriage, behind a heap of empty barrels, underneath a market stall, and behind piled up cages holding chickens captive. She even had the courage to step over a dead cat and peer into a small alleyway.

Victoire placed her hands on her hips. She took a deep breath. She had wanted to leave her sister at home, but she had not forgotten yesterday, and neither had Cécile. Glass shattering on the ground, a faint fragrance of jasmine filling the room, the only bottle of perfume Victoire had ever owned. Wasted. Broken. She had slammed her fists on the wobbly kitchen table, pulled at her sister’s hair and locked her out of the mice-infested chambers Victoire rented in a five-storey building. Victoire had yelled at her sister, telling her that she was a plague, while Cécile sobbed in the hallway. This morning when Cécile had asked to come, she had wanted to say no, but couldn’t.

Victoire ran to the other side of the square. Tripping over a raised cobblestone, she fell into a stream that flowed into the marketplace from under the gates of the butcher’s inner courtyard, its red colour gluing itself to her plain blue dress.

‘I can scrub that off for you, only two sous.’

Victoire shuddered. She recognised that croaky voice. She was skilled in avoiding the bony figure and grey sunken eyes that accompanied it. Victoire and Cécile called her Mme Macabre, Cécile being convinced that she must be at least two hundred years old and had crawled out of one of Paris’s overcrowded graveyards. Mme Macabre lived in the same building. She always sat in a chair, blocking the doorway with a woven laundry basket resting in her lap. The same one she was carrying now.

‘I’ve lost my sister, have you seen her?’

‘Escaped, has she? I would have run away sooner.’

‘Have you seen her or not?’

‘I’m not an informant.’

‘If my sister fell into the Seine, and drowned, or was hit by a carriage, or trampled upon by the mob, or I don’t know what, it’s your fault.’

Mais non, she was eating cheese and went that way.’

‘Where’s “that way”?’

‘I’ll show you.’

‘I’ll be quicker on my own.’

‘Very well.’ Mme Macabre walked away and sat down on a taboret. Victoire sighed. She gave Mme Macabre her arm without looking at her, while the laundry basket was pushed into Victoire’s other arm.

Mme Macabre led Victoire to the Place de Bastille, her sour-smelling hair blowing into Victoire’s face every time there was a gust of wind. Her long nails piercing through Victoire’s cotton sleeves.

Victoire felt as angry as the men who had fired at the fortress some weeks ago. She remembered the smoke, the heat, the sound of cannon balls flattening the walls. She had heard every command Stanislas Maillard had been yelling at his fellow citizens. She had seen his every movement, his nonchalant way of loading his musket, throwing his liberty cap into the air when the Bastille was taken and the tired scowl on his face when only seven prisoners could be found within its damp walls. She had wanted to embrace him, kiss him, tell him that he was a hero. Instead she had gone home, answering her sister’s silly questions while Victoire chased a mouse with a broom.

Mme Macabre pointed to the Rue St Antoine. The usual stench of fishbones and rotting lettuce mingled with sewage made Victoire wish she had no sense of smell at all. This street went to the Place de Grève. Cécile must have followed the market women to the city hall.

‘You can manage on your own,’ Victoire said as she put the laundry basket on the ground and walked away as quickly as she could. She had already passed the now barricaded drapery shop when she heard that croaky voice call her back.

‘I’m acquainted with those aristocrats you play housemaid for. And you’re a little thief, aren’t you? Stealing rouge from Mademoiselle’s boudoir to hide those filthy smallpox marks on your face.’

Victoire clenched her fists. Five years had passed, she still went to the Notre-Dame every day to light a candle for her parents. She stamped her foot on the ground and returned. Mme Macabre flinched when Victoire grabbed her arm.

‘You’re French. Not a savage,’ Mme Macabre said while she stroked her arm as if Victoire had inflicted her with a mortal wound.

‘I don’t like spies.’

‘I’m not a spy. You’re just not very good at keeping secrets.’

Mme Macabre looked behind her after every five steps, scrutinising every alleyway as if she expected masked men to rob her at any moment.

‘I’m cold,’ Mme Macabre said.

Victoire untied her stained shawl and wrapped it around Mme Macabre’s shoulders.

‘Look, there’s a bench, wouldn’t you like to wait, while I get my sister?’

‘I lost my husband sixteen years ago, never found him.’

‘Oh, is that why you always sit in the doorway? Waiting for your valiant musketeer to return? Better hope he brings something to eat.’

‘Here, have this.’ Mme Macabre gave Victoire a small slice of bread. Splitting the bread in two, Victoire put one half in her pouch, the other in her mouth. She almost choked when she swallowed the thick crust. She felt as if she had forgotten how to chew, forgotten that bread was supposed to be soft, tasting of salt and butter, not leathery or dry.

Something shiny sticking out of Mme Macabre’s laundry basket caught Victoire’s attention. She took it out.

‘Some deranged plan to kill Madame Deficit?’ Victoire asked holding a large breadknife in her hand.

Mais non. We’re not English, we don’t kill queens.’

‘I would be honoured to take you to the asylum at Charenton, I’m sure they’ve got clean water, and nice soft sheets.’

Non, It’s for him.’

‘Your husband? Poor you! Whatever did he do?’

‘He exists.’

Victoire put the breadknife back into the basket while Mme Macabre covered it up with a foul-smelling petticoat that had been half-eaten by moths.

Mme Macabre told Victoire all about her arranged marriage, how her husband used to gobble when he ate, how he used to snort and puff in his sleep, how he used to strangle all of the air out of the room, and how she lost him at a market stall selling apples. Apples! Something else Victoire didn’t remember the taste of.

‘I wouldn’t worry about him ever coming back,’ Victoire said as their footsteps echoed in the empty archway of a church. She tried to quicken her pace when the cheers and drums of the crowd came closer, but every time she did so Mme Macabre fastened her nails even deeper into Victoire’s flesh.

The crowd on the Place de Grève was larger than Victoire had expected. A group of women were hauling a cannon out of the city hall, while others ran around with muskets and sabres. She told Mme Macabre to wait next to some bourgeoisie-dressed ladies who were debating what should be done with the quartermaster who had tried to stop them from taking gunpowder.

‘I will not be left alone,’ Mme Macabre tried to grab Victoire’s sleeve but Victoire was too fast. Seeing her sister nowhere on the square, she ran into the city hall. The many wooden clogs stomping on the floor made the candles hanging in webs of colourless crystal tremble. A statue had fallen on the ground; its head had rolled into an open broom cupboard.

She had to squirm her way into the next room where a strong smell of burning paper made her take out her handkerchief and cover her nose and mouth. No Cécile. She went upstairs. A group of women were running down, pushing Victoire against the bannister while throwing papers into the air and ripping them to shreds.

Victoire pulled at her bodice to get some air. White dots were dancing before her eyes, obscuring the heaven scene depicted on the painting opposite her. She sat down on the marble steps, wanting to cry out when someone stepped on her hand, leaving a red boot print on her pale skin, but no sound would leave her lips. She was aware of cloudy voices muttering in the distance, of being lifted, of feeling too hot, of feeling too cold, of having something forced down her throat, of drizzle falling softly on her cheeks.

The dots ceased dancing. She was leaning against the rugged bricks of the city hall. Something with a bitter, yeasty taste was stuck between her front teeth, she moved her tongue to remove it. A small hand was holding hers.

‘You looked like a ghost, and a man carried you outside, and I gave him my cheese, and he gave it to you, and he said you would get better, and you are better now, aren’t you?’

Cécile’s eyes were red and swollen. Victoire pulled her closer. Holding her as tight as she could, she kissed her on the forehead, only letting go when Cécile started to wriggle.

‘What possessed you? Running off like that?’

‘I did not. I was waiting for you, like she said I should, and I did, and you didn’t come.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Mme Macabre with the basket.’

‘Did she give you cheese?’

Cécile stared at the ground, rubbing the hem of Victoire’s dress between her palms.

‘Please, don’t be angry,’ she said.

‘We’re going home.’ Victoire swayed when she stood up. She saw Mme Macabre’s bony figure speaking to a group of women. They laughed, shook their heads and walked away. Mme Macabre tried to grab someone’s sleeve and was rewarded with a raised fist, after which, she attempted to climb on one of the carts, changing her mind when the owner’s black dog bared its teeth.

Victoire sighed. She tried to figure out if she should pity or despise Mme Macabre. She gave Cécile the piece of bread she had saved earlier, while the crowd shouted, ‘to Versailles,’ and raised their pitchforks and pikes into the air.

The crowd started to leave the square in a long procession just when large raindrops began to fill the grooves between the cobblestones. They looked just as disciplined as the king’s royal army.

Victoire descended the steps of the city hall. Attentively listening to the sound of Cécile’s clogs clacking behind her, she tapped Mme Macabre on the shoulder.

‘Don’t you ever leave me alone again,’ Mme Macabre said.

‘Who do you think I am? Your wet nurse?’

Mais non. No harm done, but we must not dally. We must follow. Quickly.’

‘I’m taking you home,’ Victoire said.

‘I’m going to Versailles.’

‘Versailles is farther away than the next street corner, you know that, don’t you?’

Bien sûr, and I know where the royals store their bread.’

‘By the time you are there, there won’t be anything left to ransack.’

‘Not if they cannot find the royal stores.’

‘Please,’ Cécile said while she was licking bread crumbs from her fingers, ‘I want to go too.’

‘No, you don’t,’ Victoire dragged Cécile away from Mme Macabre, ignoring the old woman’s threats about those aristocrats she worked for, and the stealing and the rouge.

‘That’s him! He gave you my cheese,’ Cécile pointed to a man with an untrimmed beard, his hair partly hidden away underneath a hat, the red-white-blue cockade of the revolution pinned on his dark brown coat. Maillard.

Victoire moved closer. This time she would have the courage to speak to him, thank him, perhaps even kiss him on the cheeks. She stopped when she overheard him complaining to another revolutionist about this miserable army that he was forced to lead. Victoire had to suppress the urge to slap him. Whispering instructions into Cécile’s ear, she gave her sister the last four sous she had. Cécile disappeared.

The raindrops had changed into a rainstorm. Victoire smiled. Only last week she remembered running inside a shoemaker’s shop, pretending to buy something until they chased her out. Now she wiped the rouge she had so carefully applied this morning from her cheeks. It didn’t matter anymore.

Cécile came back with a cart, pulled by two women. Victoire went to Mme Macabre who was watching the marchers leaving the square.

‘You better get on,’ Victoire said.

Mme Macabre revealed her yellowish-brown teeth, thanking Victoire three times while she loaded her laundry basket on the wagon. Victoire seized Mme Macabre’s wrist. She had wanted to pinch her, but the widening of Mme Macabre’s grey eyes and her trembling body deterred Victoire from doing so.

‘Use my sister against me again, and I’ll find a use for that breadknife of yours,’ Victoire whispered in Mme Macabre’s ear.

‘You wouldn’t have come if I had asked,’ Mme Macabre said in a weak voice.

‘You don’t know that,’ Victoire paused. No, if Mme Macabre had knocked on her door this morning she wouldn’t have opened it, but now she wasn’t so sure, ‘you’ve succeeded in making me feel responsible for you.’

Victoire helped Mme Macabre climb into the cart. Cécile crawled beside Mme Macabre who took the child’s hand and lay it in her lap.

‘I was a cook at Versailles once,’ Mme Macabre said, ‘no need to let those wretched children starve, I thought, the king didn’t think so. I slept in the dungeons for giving his surpluses away.’

‘Men may have stormed the Bastille,’ Victoire said, ‘women will do more than storming Versailles, we’ll eat the king’s bread and take him back to Paris, where he belongs.’

‘Are we there yet?’ Cécile asked.

______________________________________________________________

Signe Maene is from Belgium where she lives in Ghent. She studies English literature at the Open University UK. Her first language is Flemish.

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Cassandra of Troy

Listen soldier. Your master may have told you rumours of my madness, or he may have told you nothing at all. Agathe here has been my handmaiden for many years now, she will vouch for my honesty when I ask of you what I am about to ask. The three of us here, locked together in this room, are the last hope of Troy.

Agathe, take this message from me and give it to – your name, soldier? Belos. A fine name. Give it to him. Read it soldier, please. I may be your prisoner but even prisoners have the right to be heard, no? Ah, they never taught you to read.

This is what the message says: that this offering of peace is not what it seems. The behemoth now standing inside our gates is no mere statue, no mere toy, but a vessel for a veritable army. In it, enemy soldiers lie in wait. They are listening to the people of Troy celebrate the end of the war. But when the jubilations end, when the people of this city put their heads down to sleep, these vipers will strike. They will cut with their steel, they will rend flesh from bone and our streets will to rivers of blood. All of Troy shall know the sound a soul makes as it slips it bonds.

I can see by the set of your brow that you do not believe me, Belos the soldier. No matter. I am not sure that I believe myself. All I know is that terror has possessed my heart, that I must speak while I have a throat and a mouth with which to speak. I must speak lest I scream. I ask this of you because of my fear for Troy and those who rejoice within its walls. I am its princess, Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. You must believe that I have only the best interests of the people at heart. Mark my words: there is no safe place for you soldier, unless you do what I ask. You will die come the dawn when they strike. It will be you who is struck down when the great warrior Agamemnon comes to take me as his prize.

How do I know what will befall us all? Because I remember the future. This is my malady, my curse. You laugh. No matter. These pictures in my minds, they are like the memories of dreams, and they have the quality of a dream.

You refuse me. Who are you to refuse me? I may be your prisoner, for now, but I am still your Princess. And you must obey. You say that I am mad.

Agathe, is my madness known throughout the land? Don’t stay silent. Tell me. I know I must seem mad, given what I have just done. Agathe, you were not there so let me tell you. I went to the public square by our city’s grand gates, having heard the rumours of the Greeks’ great gift to our people, a token of their surrender. I had a fear on me, that something I had foreseen long ago had finally arrived. And when I saw it, a huge wooden horse, that fear gripped me so totally that I screamed. All in the square beheld their mad princess as she grabbed an axe from a nearby workman and ran for the behemoth, hoping to crack it open like a great egg, to reveal the soldiers within. I was grabbed, pulled at, arrested, my royal dignity taken from me. Doubt not – I am here in my rooms in the palace but I am a prisoner. I am your prisoner.

Belos, Agathe here was a mere chattel slave when my family rose her up. Now she is a slave-maiden of the palace, vassal to those of royal blood. And yet she – and yet you refuse to answer my question, ungrateful girl – ah, she speaks.

See, soldier, listen to the girl’s words. It is not my madness that is known, but my gift for prophecy.  Fine then, my claim to prophecy. Yes, some have come true.

Agathe, water.

What do you think of this fair maiden? Is she not a beauty. More, Agathe, there is a great thirst on me. More. Enough, sit.

Do you not think her beautiful? I can tell that you do by the way you looked at her when you locked us in. She is well-fed, fair. Young. All a brave soldier such as you should want as a reward for your sacrifices in the name of Troy, for your heroism. Do this last deed for me and you will be rewarded; I will allow you to take her in marriage. You will be given land and wealth, a title even if you desire it. Ah, now your hilarity has failed you. This is well within my power and you know it.

Agathe, stand for the soldier. Stand! Turn for him, let him see all of you. Yes, you do have to obey me as long as you stand within these walls. Disobey and suffer. How would you like it if I let the soldier Belos have you without having to marry you first? You would be disgraced and you know it. Soldier, she is a fine prize, certainly worth what I ask of you.

You will not go? But see her slender neck, her fine hands. See her hips; she will bear you many children if I command it of her.

From where do you come? A farm boy, I see. So it is not just Agathe who has been raised up by service to the crown. You too have benefited. Therefore, is it not your honour-bound duty to do as I ask?

Your lord’s commands do not outstrip mine! Your war-lords answer to the crown, they answer to me. They may hold me in this room, they may bar the door, they may run me with a sword but they must obey those who veins run with royal blood!

When those foreign hordes come there will be no commanders, no lord and ladies, no King or Queen. No Princess… no Agathe, leave me be. I am not tired, I am not desirous of sleep. My eyes are terribly open. Take my message, soldier. Time slips out grasp every moment you delay. Go. Go.

He will not. He will not.

What’s it to you if the stories of my madness are true or exaggerated? Surely you value your life. Then you should take all precautions to guard it. How can a corpse fulfil its duty? Go then, go with my message. If I am right you will be saved. If not, then all will be well.

Believe me now, I beg of you. If you do not believe my prophecy, because I fear that that is what it is, believe my terror is real. Let your charity guide you from your post, to your commander, to one who can help us. Let your soldier’s gallantry propel you with my message in hand. See, the stars outside are smouldering as they always have in my memories of this night.

* * * * *

I didn’t hear you, Agathe, say it again.

Oh, Belos doesn’t want to listen to a mad woman speak, does he?

I remember the future. They rise the way silt rises through water, when disturbed at the bottom of a pond – hazy, partial, yet distinct. I mentioned the temple. Yes, that is when it began. Myself and my brother, taken by that child’s sense of adventure, of freedom even though we were of the palace and therefore had no freedom. We ran past the guards, who clunked after us in their armour, giving good chase but not good enough. Down the winding streets we went, passing our subjects. Groups of children at play – I longed to join them but knew I could not. Those urchins had no choices, most would die soon, but in a strange way they were unburdened too, whereas we would inevitably have to return to the strictures of royal life.

At least I knew this. But Helenus ran like a wild goose among them, until his clothes were torn and dust-choked. He almost looked like one of them, except too well-fed to be poor. His eyes glinted with joy; there was no hint then of the stern warrior he would have to become.

Among the crowded stalls and tables we found a small white horse, finely carved out of wood. Look, my brother said, delighting in it. I loved it, wanted it. But we had no money with us, so we left it behind. I kept thinking about that horse and said to Helenus how much I had liked it. He vanished into the crowd, leaving me bewildered, abandoned and worried about how I would get by on my own. Then he reappeared: he’d stolen the horse for me.

Guiltily but glad of it, I buried it away in the folds of my robes and we ventured on, through the maze of streets. As afternoon became evening we knew that those in the palace would be fearing for us, that we must begin our journey back. Circling back, we saw the steeple of the temple of Apollo rising over the rooftops – let us go there, said Helenus, the adventurous one – and he ran ahead of me, shouting at me to race him there. I darted after him and by taking a side street overtook him, and I was the first to blunder, breathless, up the stone steps and to heave open the ancient doors into that hallowed hall of silence.

I feared the houses of the Gods. I may be a princess but I was conscious that I knew nothing of the world – so how could I know the deities’ obscure workings, the calculations they made about the weight of our small mortal lives? Looking back, Helenus had still not arrived. In the temple stood a statue of the god himself, standing proudly and gazing upwards lyre in hand, and at his feet a wreath of laurels and quiver of arrows, all hewn out of stone, their points blunted by the hands of many worshippers.

Helenus appeared behind me. What are you looking at? He asked. It’s just an old statue, they’re everywhere. I ignored him, a strange feeling had arrested me. It seemed that the statue had turned its eyes downward to regard me, and I swore I could hear the music of His granite lyre… then I was standing on my balcony, looking down on the streets of Troy – all were filled with defiled corpses. Everywhere the city was burning and filled with death – in the distance I perceived the proud head of a giant horse, like my toy grown into hideous gigantism, and the night was filled with the screams of the dying. I recognised some of those corpses as my brother and sisters, members of the court, of the upper classes, lying dead next to the peasants and the beggars, the merchants and the thieves, the landlords and the ladies, the travelling bards, all united finally by death.

Then, Helenus was kneeling over me, shaking me awake, fear in his eyes. I managed to stand, dazed, unsure even of where I was. I dropped my horse – when he tried to give it back to me I screamed, struck by a terrible fear, and a terrible knowledge.

When we finally left the temple to make our way back to the palace, I looked back at the god, but his eyes were turned away.

Helenus had called for guards. They got us home – but it was no more a home for me. Home stopped existing then, as I had seen its end. But at all times I was assailed by doubt – what had I seen? Was it a vision or just some sort of fever dream? I could still hear that music of the lyre, or imagined that I could. I imagined that it had wormed its way into my ears, opening them up to new sounds, new vibrations. I would hear things, see things, that no one else could.

Look. The night is no longer black, but grey. Dawn begins its approach. The revellers are going quiet. The city’s sleep begins.

Yes, fine Agathe. You may sleep too. I want for nothing now. You will not sleep, guard? Fine. That is your decision. Is there no convincing you? I doubt myself but that does not mean I do not want to take precautions. If there is any chance that the sleeper in our midst is a harbinger of the death I saw all those years ago – then I want to take it.

No. No, I see that you will not go.

There is no hope now. A darkness has come upon my heart, that same night of the soul that descended on me in the temple of Apollo. I have spent many nights in doubt, questioning myself and the truth of my memories. I wish I could ask the future whether I should keep trying, or whether I should leap now from the balcony and be done with it.

I don’t need to tell you that no one has believed me, in the same way that you don’t believe me now. Even when my memories of the future have been realised, become present realities, then retreated into past, I was doubted, questioned at every turn, my prophecies explained away as mere chance.

When I was recovering from that incident in the temple, my mother, the Queen Hecuba, came to see me. I tried to tell her what had happened, but she simply brushed my cheek with the back of her hand – warmly, but insistently. I imagine she was afraid of what I might say.

My child, she said. She called me the brightest, most imaginative of all her children, the one who ran to her in the morning with news of my dreams…

When spring came, it was decided, on whose decree I don’t know, that I was free to wander the castle again. But everywhere I was watched. I was not allowed to leave the halls of the palace. A girl from the kitchens who had been my friend, in spite of the distance put between us by our station, was glad of my return and eager to tell me everything that had been happening in the palace. But as soon as we embraced I remembered her death. I remembered that she would grow from an awkward, gangly child into a beautiful, elegant woman, an appealing target for marauding soldiers. I tried to tell her, to warn her, but she pulled away in horror – as if it was what I wanted to happen. As if I, by foretelling the terrors of the future, was awaiting them too.

And so I was tarred: the dreamer of dreams, the one whose mind had broken, the mad daughter of the kind and queen of Troy.

I remember what will happen to you soldier. I remember the glint of the blade, the panicked eyes of the Greek soldier that will kill you by the very door you now guard.

What? The message is on the floor there by Agathe, she dropped it in her sleep. Oh, now you will take it for me? Look, it is almost dawn. All of our chances have passed us by. It doesn’t matter. I remember what will happen to us: all must die. No future I have seen has not happened. Here is the rest of what I remember: the invaders will tear through our city’s tender flesh and render it to dust. Who would have thought that something as permanent as a city could be so frail? It is so hard to imagine – the end, death, destitution. It always happens to other people, and it seems so abstract, until it finally comes for you. I do not remember dying here – I must be taken as a concubine for the warrior Agamemnon as his reward for his bravery in battle, his military genius. And there, his wife, his vengeful wife will kill him, and kill me too in consequence. Did you hear the stories of what he has done? He sacrificed his own daughter to the Gods so they would grant his armies safe passages to our shore.

I have no foretelling of what death is like. That remains as much a black mystery for me as it does for all others. I only hope that I may meet Apollo finally and demand answers from him, demand to know why he has cursed me so.

Listen! Do you hear that? Agathe, awake! Do you hear? It sounds like – yes, it is the clash of swords. A scream! A cry for help! Look – they grey dawn is glowing red. The fires have begun. Oh, the yells of terror! It is happening, it has come. Oh, terrible dawn. Why did I have to be right? Why couldn’t I have been simply a mad girl!

Hear that – that is the palace door being torn down. That is the sound it makes as it crashes to the floor. The streets are filled with fleeing people – come to the window, look at what happens – there is no hope for any of us. No, leave me to my despair! I tried, my whole life I tried. I tried to save us but no one listened.

Agathe: fear not. Your death has not come for you. You will be among the saved but – listen, quieten down. There will be a price for your life. You will be wedded to a foreign invader and taken to a foreign land. Decide now whether this price for your life is worth paying. You will never see your loved ones again, everyone you know now will be dead or far from you. If you do not want to pay this price, leap now and take control. You have been a slave all your life. This is your only chance to control your fate. No? Fine, that is your choice. I choose to meet the end I have foreseen, that has always been laid out for me.

Hear the clash of steel, of armour outside? Your fellow troupe has all been killed. They are bashing down the door! The future has come for us all – well, I am here, standing, to meet it. I have my certainty now, and none may take it from me.

______________________________________________________________

Cathal Kehoe grew up in County Laois, Ireland. After studying English and Film in NUI Galway, he moved to Dublin where he currently lives. He works in Marketing and runs a regular group of like-minded writers who meet every two weeks in Dublin City Centre. In addition to the 9-5, his job on the evenings and weekends is to write short stories and work towards completing his first novel. He has previously had work published in Headstuff.org’s Fortnightly Fiction series. 

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The Magician

In early 1860s Virginia, Samuel was a rare thing, a free Negro. Rarer still, he was not a farmer, tradesman, or manual laborer. He was a magician in the tradition of Henry “Box” Brown and his talent came as natural to him as breathing.

Samuel hadn’t known his parents, Hezekiah and Hannah, but he owed his freedom to them. Both had been slaves on a plantation owned by Mr. Robert Carlisle. Determined to never see a child of his sold, Hezekiah had spilled his seed on the ground with regularity. Mr. Robert Carlisle, believing Hannah to be barren, had decided that Hezekiah and Hannah would be granted their freedom upon his death. That was how Hezekiah and Hannah came to be free people.

Shortly afterward, Hannah became pregnant with Samuel. But being pregnant at an advanced age and in poor health proved too much for her. She died in childbirth. Left a widower, Hezekiah resolved to raise their infant son on his own. But that was not to be. While working in a field with a new model plow he’d borrowed, he severed a chunk of flesh out of his left leg. The wound, which went without proper treatment, festered and turned gangrenous. As a result, his leg had to be amputated. But, the amputation took place too late. The infection had spread throughout his body and killed him.

A childless spinster negro school teacher took in the orphaned infant. The woman, Miss Rachel, lived alone in a house she’d inherited from her mother, Sara. Hailing from Louisiana, Sara had lived in the town for three years when Rachel was born.

She raised Rachel on her own and had a red schoolhouse built beside her home so Rachel could teach. Though Rachel never had many students, few negroes were allowed to attend school, she practiced her vocation with the zeal of a calling. When Sara died, the townspeople assumed the house would be sold, and the school torn down. Instead, to everyone’s surprise, Sara had owned both outright, leaving Rachel the legal owner of her mother’s property.

Though always courteous to the other townspeople, Miss Rachel was thought standoffish. She kept to herself and never displayed deference to the town’s white shopkeepers. Like a white woman, she told them what she wanted in proper English while looking them right in the eye. Some folks said she acted that way because of her high yellow complexion and wavy shoulder-length black hair. Others thought she put on airs due to her relationship with Mr. Bart, a wealthy white plantation owner.

Mr. Bart was the sole man who ever visited Miss Rachel. She was never seen with a suitor. Folks said you could set a pocket watch by his 7:00 pm Tuesday and Saturday evening appearances on her verandah. There was some speculation that theirs was a romantic relationship. But in truth, they’d only sit in her parlor talking, their behavior and mannerisms having more in common with siblings than lovers.

It was Mr. Bart who introduced Samuel to magic. After arriving at Miss Rachel’s, he’d always ask after Samuel. Once Samuel appeared, he’d pull a coin from behind his ear or do some other trick.

As he grew older, Samuel asked Mr. Bart to show him the secrets to his tricks. Impressed by Samuel’s burgeoning intellect, Mr. Bart began teaching him how to do magic. Samuel proved an excellent pupil. He practiced his technique until he mastered each trick. Mr. Bart then started buying special tricks from a shopkeeper in town to give to Samuel. Once Samuel could do a new trick perfectly, he’d perform it with Mr. Bart and Miss Rachel serving as his audience.

Though pleased with Samuel’s talent for magic, Miss Rachel focused on educating him and ensuring that he was well cared for. In the tiny one-room schoolhouse, she drilled him and her other few pupils on their numbers and letters. To teach him the value of work, she had him chop wood and stack it in the school’s cellar. When the weather turned cool, he owned tending the stove that kept the school warm. Upon reaching adulthood, Samuel began performing as a magician with Miss Rachel’s blessing. By then she’d gotten on in years, so he continued to live in her home where he could look after her.

To earn his living, Samuel traveled from town to town in Virginia on a sad-eyed donkey, named Toby. Advertising for his shows always took place three days before his Saturday performance. A wooly headed small barefoot negro boy called Jim would miraculously appear in a raggedy shirt and britches cinched at the waist with a rough hemp rope. He’d go door to door addressing the owners of the local business establishments as “Cap’n” or “Suh”, asking to tack up posters. They’d dismiss the sleepy-eyed looking dark-skinned boy with a protruding lower lip as slow in the head with hardly a glance. Once the posters were up, Jim would paper the town with flyers. He’d put them on the seats of horse-drawn carriages and tuck them beneath saddles to ensure word of the show got around the town. Once his tasks were complete, Jim would vanish.

At daybreak, on the day of a show, Samuel would ride down the town’s main street astride Toby. Wearing a rusty brown medium crown bowler, a yellowed cotton shirt, frayed braces, trousers, and scuffed brown shoes with empty eyelets, his head would swivel left and right, noting the town’s streets and alleys.

Tied to the back of his saddle was a bedroll and a pair of weathered saddlebags hung across Toby’s haunches. Samuel kept his performance clothes and freeman papers in the saddlebags. A second set of the papers lay neatly folded in the hollowed out heel of his left shoe.

As Toby and Samuel made their way into town, Samuel stopped for a moment in its center. After staring at the makeshift wooden scaffolding for hangings that would serve as the stage for his evening performance he continued on his way. When he reached the far end of town, he tied Toby to a hitching rail above a gray wooden watering trough. While Toby slurped water, Samuel unlashed the saddlebags’ strap. He reached inside it, lifted out his performance clothes, and laid them across the saddle. Then he removed his hat, stripped off his shirt and splashed the upper half of his body with some of the trough’s dark stagnant water. Next, he stepped to the far side of Toby, dropped his braces, slipped out of his trousers, and gave his lower half a quick dousing. After drying himself with the end of a scratchy blanket, he slid on his good black trousers. A dazzling white linen shirt, black waistcoat, and black frock coat followed. He slipped on his socks, then set about polishing his black dress shoes to a high sheen. Having finished dressing, he smeared Macassar Oils into his hair. Then he brushed his thick kinky hair backward until it lay as flat to his skull as it could.

With his toilet complete, Samuel started rehearsing. With the patter designed to disguise his feints and misdirection going through his mind, he started with close sleight-of-hand tricks, palming coins, making them appear and disappear. Then paper tricks. After crumpling paper in the palm of his hand, he blew into his fist and opened his hand, revealing an empty palm. He moved on to playing cards, making them leap through the air from one hand to the other. Rope tricks followed. Using his fingers as scissors, he cut a rope into three pieces of differing lengths. Then, holding the pieces in one hand, he jerked his wrist downward, and they reassembled into a single solid rope. The practicing continued until Samuel had successfully completed every trick intended to distract and confuse the audience, save two.

With the sun sinking in the sky, the crowd of white landowners and their progeny gathered. Samuel strode onto the scaffolding’s platform carrying a lumpy canvas bag. As he set down the bag a hush fell over the crowd at the sight of the negro magician. Expecting their reaction, Samuel leaped down into the crowd and pulled a coin from behind the ear of a child. With that single act, the crowd relaxed and settled down to watch the show.

Retaking the stage, Samuel did one trick after another, building suspense while allowing brief interludes for applause. Once all the standard tricks had been completed, it was time for the finale. To begin, Samuel selected four roughneck looking men in the audience and asked them to join him on stage. As they mounted the wooden stairs, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This would be one of the two special tricks he never rehearsed.

With the crowd hooting, hollering, and laughing at the somewhat sheepishly looking men, Samuel knelt and removed chains and locks from the canvas bag. Handing them to the men, he instructed them to bind him well. Children balanced on the tips of their toes and strained their necks to see as a grave quiet fell over the crowd.

The men, happy to accommodate Samuel, wound the chains around him. They shackled his hands, feet, and body as tightly as they could, the chains digging into his wrists and ankles, cutting off his circulation. And when they were done with him, he asked the men to retake their places in the crowd. Turning his back to the crowd, Samuel counted to himself, wriggling his body, and on thirty, he spun around. As the chains fell to the stage, the crowd erupted in whistles, cheers, and thunderous applause. Samuel smiled, bowed and leaped down into the crowd. Hat extended, he accepted the coins they gave him, thanking each person “kindly” as the crowd dispersed.

When everyone was gone, Samuel rush to where he’d left Toby tethered. He climbed aboard him, and in the deepening darkness of the night, made his way to the appointed meeting spot. Near the rendezvous point, he dismounted and proceeded forward cautiously. As agreed, he signaled his approach by imitating the call of the Great Horned Owl. Jim, hearing Samuel’s call, returned it. All was safe.

As Samuel crept further into the night-black forest, he could barely see the runaway slaves Jim had led to the appointed spot. Drawing closer, he saw a mix of gratitude and terror in their eyes. Many had beads of sweat above their upper lips. Samuel hugged each runaway. Then he offered them a final chance to turn back. A few who regretted leaving behind loved ones or were unable to conquer their fear of the unknown relinquished hope to return to the life they knew. Others, having concluded that life without freedom was no life at all, chose to go onward.

With the decisions made, Samuel offered a pregnant woman a ride on Toby’s back. She declined, pointing to an old man whose toes had been severed from his foot in retribution for a prior attempt to escape. Samuel helped the old man onto Toby, then he and Jim began leading their charges toward freedom.

They moved under the cover of darkness in silence, knowing the escape would be discovered at morning’s light. Being stalwart Christians, the slave owners’ would only delay pursuing their property until Sunday morning church services had ended. Then the tracking hounds would be loosed. Noses to the ground, they’d scamper between the hooves of the horses bearing men with rifles and whips, determined to chase down the runaways and recover what they deemed rightfully theirs.

Despite hiding by day and traveling only at night, the runaways were almost caught many times. It was at those moments that Samuel steadied his breath and prepared to do the secret trick he held in reserve, the illusion of making himself and those around him invisible.

For days, Samuel and Jim led the runaways through dense forests, tall grass fields and swiftly flowing streams. Though the journeying was hard, none complained. Finally, on the brink of exhaustion, their throats parched with thirst and their stomachs gnawing on emptiness, they arrived at the safe haven.

Standing in the bedroom doorway, his body a silhouette in the darkness, Samuel looked at the figure in the bed. As he turned to walk away, a voice called to him.

“Samuel?”

“Ma’am?”

“Are you okay?”

“Yes. Ma’am.”

“Jim?”

“Yes. Ma’am. He’s fine.”

“Good.”

Samuel crossed the room to the bed and bent his head down. Miss Rachel cupped his face between her frail hands and kissed him on the forehead. Samuel helped her stand up, and holding her steady, led her from the house, and to the old abandoned schoolhouse. There, they gave the knock code and Jim opened the door. He received a kiss from Miss Rachel, then stepped aside, and closed the door behind them. With Samuel on one side and Jim on the other, Miss Rachel descended the rickety stairs into the cellar.

“Everyone,” said Samuel, “this is Miss Rachel.”

The group of runaways crowded around her. One by one they each took her small hand in theirs and thanked her for rescuing them. Tears trickled down the old woman’s face, the conductor, at their first stop on the Underground Railroad.

______________________________________________________________

J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has been published in over 20 magazines, including Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He resides outside of Boston.

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Elizabeth Buttimer

 

Red clay, white painted church, and shape notes

eight children with a war in between

crimson blood on the ground with

a mini-ball piercing flesh and bone.

An arm no good for farming, but a voice

hearty for singing harmony.

in songs that shaped a nation with

robust alleluias and melodies,

as haunting the battle fields which

were filled with husbands,

brothers and sons, with neighbors

friends and strangers who in the night

sang to each other from opposing campfires.

In the blackness, as disembodied voices

floating across the silent, bloody fields.

Songs that they took with them to the war

came home with some, or stayed

as melody in a meadow for

those who sang no more,

For those who found rest in the green fields

that had become a red washed theater

for conflict and fallen comrades.

The” fasola” harmony rang discordant with war.

Songs of the everlasting and the eternal,

while the temporal came in rifle shots

and canon blasts and fires that leveled cities,

ripping arms, limbs and families forever.

Red clay and crimson flood from the

blood of soldiers and the Lamb.

Melancholy music sung as community,

strengthening those who sang in accord

to still the cacophony of battle

and sweeten life with the soil,

mending the view from behind the plow.

______________________________________________________________

Elizabeth Buttimer, an entrepreneur, a manufacturer and former educator, she received her Ph.D. from Georgia State University and her M.S.C. and B.A. degrees from Auburn University.

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The Diary

By Lynn B. Connor

Time worn pages written so long ago—the thoughts of a twelve-year-old girl lost in the shadowy corners of my mind. Where have the years gone?

I am so lonely. Living here far beyond the end of the East Country Road, we are so isolated. My mother and older sister fill the days remembering when we lived in Heian-kyo, the imperial capital. They talk about the emperor and life at court and retell romantic tales. My favorite ones are those of Genji, the Shining Prince, and his romances. I want to read The Tale of Genji myself from beginning to end, not just hear scattered stories.

“Be patient,” they tell me. “Romantic tales are copied by hand. Printing is for important books such as the Buddhist sutras.” I am twelve and should be learning the sutras. We have those. But I can only think of Genji not of learning the way of Buddha. I remember every word of the stories of Prince Genji I have heard, but not the words of the sutras.

* * * * *

I’m not patient. Today I had a life-size image of Buddha made and prayed, “Buddha, please grant that we move to the capital soon, very soon, so I can get all of Genji. My request to Buddha is not reasonable. Father is governor of this faraway place. We cannot move to the capital. I pray and hope that someone will send us Genji.

My prayers are different now, and I know the sutras. I can separate my mind from frivolous things.

* * * * *

A messenger from the capital arrived today. I thought my prayers were answered. I was so disappointed. No books. Then this evening Father gave us the good news. He is being transferred back to the capital. I am so excited – the home of Genji and books! I am nervous, too. We have been away so many years. Will people think that I am a country girl?

All those dreams of court life, little did I know that life in the capital and the glamour of the court could be lonely, too. I served at court occasionally, but I was more like a guest. What would my life have been like if I had been more devoted to court service? If my father was not sent to the East Country again and then my husband sent to the East Country while I remained in the capital?

* * * * *

Sadness has crept in with the fog. It covers the house. Everything is dismantled and scattered about as we prepare to return to the capital. I must leave behind my life-sized Buddha. I burst into tears.

Outside more confusion. Our servants are gathering our luggage, our household goods, and everything we will need for our journey through the wilderness. There are so many of us – not just our servants and carriers, but also foot soldiers and horsemen armed with bows to protect us from robbers.

* * * * *

Yesterday morning our journey began. Mother, my sister and I got into our palanquins. Father rode ahead on his horse. We are staying for a few days in a temporary, thatched hut on a low bluff. We hung curtains and put up bamboo screens so we can look out and not be seen by the men. I can see a wide plain to the south. On the east and west the sea creeps close. What an interesting place. The morning fog is charming. I am glad we are resting here for a few days.

* * * * *

All yesterday we traveled in a heavy, dark rain. We spent the night in a little hut almost submerged by the rain. I was so afraid I could not sleep. Today the rain has stopped and we are drying our dripping clothes. There is nothing to see – only three lone trees on a little hill.

* * * * *

What a change from the rain. Last night, we stayed at a place called Kuroda Beach. On one side of us, hills and thick groves of pine made a wide band. The moon shone on the white sand stretching into the distance. We listened to the wind and wrote poems. Mine was:

I will not sleep a wink!

If not this evening, then when

could I ever see this —

Kuroda Beach beneath

the moon of an autumn night.*

* * * * *

I will never forget Kuroda Beach in the moon light. Now, here on the Musashi Plain there is nothing of interest. The sand of the beaches is like mud and the purple grass of poems is only various kinds of towering reeds. I do not agree with the old poem

A single stock

of purple on

the Musashi Plain

makes me love

all the wild grasses.**

We cannot see what is ahead, not even see the tips of the bows of our horsemen as we go through the reeds. There is nothing to love about these wild grasses.

* * * * *

We are going through an area called the Chinese Plain. A few pink summer flowers called Japanese Pinks remain. Everyone laughs – Japanese Pinks on the Chinese Plain.

* * * * *

Last night we reached the foot of the Ashigara Mountains, all covered with a wild, thick woods. We only had glimpses of the moonless sky. I felt swallowed up by the darkness. Then out of the darkness, three singers emerged. We invited them to sit under a large paper umbrella, and my servant lit a fire. They had long hair and their faces were so white and clean they looked like maids from a nobleman’s home. Their clear, sweet singing seemed to reach the heavens and charmed us. When they left, tears came into our eyes as we watched them go back into the darkness.

I was reminded of that night years later when we stopped at Nogami. Female entertainers came and sang to us through the night filling me with longing. And reminded again of that night by Mt. Ashigara, when traveling by boat we anchored for the night. The singing of women entertainers came out of the darkness. Their voices moved me as before. 

At dawn we began our climb of the mountain. As we climbed, the dense forest changed to a few scattered trees. Clouds swirled around our feet. I was so afraid.

* * * * *

Mt. Fuji! How surprised I am. When we saw it from our home, it was just a small gray peak. Seeing it so close, it is like nothing else in the world. The slopes look like they are painted indigo blue. The snow on top makes it look like someone wearing a short white jacket over a gown. Smoke rises from its flat top. Last night flames leapt into the air.

* * * * *

When we left our home, the leaves were still green. Now as we pass Mt. Miyaji red leaves cling to the trees. I thought:

The furious storms

do not blow

on Mt. Miyaji

the red maple leaves

are still unscattered.

* * * * *

I no longer care about looking at beautiful places and writing. We stopped for several days because I was so sick. Winter winds blew so fiercely, it was difficult to bear. Snow came, and in the storm we passed through another barrier station, and went over Mount Atsumi. At the foot of Mitsusaka Mountain light rain fell night and day mixed with hail. It was so melancholy that we did not stay. Nothing leaves any impressions. The places are only names, nothing more. Maybe we are just tired and anxious for our journey to end.

* * * * *

Tonight we have stopped by Lake Biwa. I’m so excited. I’m not sure I can sleep. Tomorrow we reach the capital, the home of Prince Genji and our new home. Now I can read all of Genji. I am nervous, too. What will people think of me, a girl from the country?

* * * * *

Yesterday we went through the last barrier station where they check the coming and of people before the capital, I remembered an old poem

This is the barrier

where people come and go,

meeting and parting

both friends and strangers

the Afusaka Barrier***

When I passed through this barrier station so long ago. It was winter then, too.

The voice of the Afusaka

Barrier wind blowing now

through the station,

is no different from the one

I heard long.

Before only a roughly hewn face of the Buddha could be seen. Now there is a splendid temple.

Genji came and went through here. And at last we entered the capital. I had forgotten how wide the streets are. Red Bird Avenue is three hundred feet wide and lined with willow trees. Their bare branches swayed in the wind as we passed. Huge, wild-looking trees surround our house. It is hard to believe we are in the capital and not back deep in the mountains.

* * * * *

Everyone is busy unpacking and arranging the house. No one has time to think about me and stories. Will I ever get to read all of The Tale of Genji? Today I could wait no longer. I pestered Mother, “Please, please find me stories to read,” until she stopped working and sent a letter to a relative asking if she had any books. Now we wait.

* * * * *

Today a box filled with beautiful booklets of stories arrived. I started reading them immediately. There are none about Genji.

* * * * *

I cry and cry. I don’t even feel like reading tales. My childhood nurse has died. Mother is so worried about me she found another Genji tale. Genji is charmed by ten year-old Murasaki. When she becomes an orphan, he takes her to his palace. I want to know what happens next. I pray, “Please grant that I may get to read all of Genji from beginning to end.”

* * * * *

Last month I went with Mother and Father on a retreat to Uzumasa Temple. My only prayers were for a copy of Genji. I was sure my prayers would be answered. I am so disappointed.

How vexed I was that my parents seldom took me on their pilgrimages. Years later I returned to Uzumasa and have gone on other pilgrimages. My prayers concentrated on raising my children with great care and seeing them grow up as I hoped. And I prayed my husband would find happiness in his career.

* * * * *

Today my parents sent me to visit an aunt. We liked each other and talked of many things. When I was ready to leave, she smiled and said, “I would like to give you a present, something special.” How did she know? She gave me all of Genji. I could hardly wait to get home and start reading.

* * * * *

I have done nothing but read Genji all day and until I fall asleep late at night. Things that confused me when I heard or read only parts of it now are clear. I never could memorize a Buddhist sutra, but already I know by heart the names of all the people in the story. There are over fifty. I would not stop reading even if I had a chance to become the empress.

I want to be beautiful and have long silky hair that almost touches the ground just like Genji’s love Yugao. I daydream about being like Lady Ukifune hidden away in a mountain village. Watching the blossoms, the crimson leaves, the snow and the moon. Waiting for letters from my shining prince. This is all I wish for.

The stories fill my mind all day, and I dream of them at night.

* * * * *

The things I hoped for. The things I had wished for. Could they really happen? How crazy I was. How foolish I feel.*

* * * * *

Author’s Notes: This story is based on Sarashina Nikki, a diary of a court lady in eleventh-century Japan. She is simply known as Sugawara no Takasue no Musume, Sugawara no Takasue’s daughter (1009-1059). I have adapted the sections of the Sarashina Nikki that tell of her childhood passion for romantic tales, especially The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), and then interwoven her reflections and events from later in life. My goal has been to maintain the spirit of the Sarashina Nikki. Additional information (such as the function of barrier stations, the description of Heian-kyo, present-day Kyoto, and poems which were well known at the time) regarding ancient Japan is woven into the text.

There are several translations of Sarashina Nikki. Where there is a direct quote from the diary, it is from The Sarashina Diary, A Woman’s Life in Eleventh-Century Japan, Sugawara no Takasue no Musume, translated, with an introduction, by Sonja Arntzen and Ito Moriyuki. These are indicated with an *. If there is no asterisk after the poem, the translation is by mine. In addition, ** and *** indicate that the poems are not in the diary.: ** from the Kokin Shu, a poetry collection, compiled in the tenth century and *** from the Gosen Shu, a poetry collection, compiled in 951. The poems were well known at the time.

The Tale of Genji: When Genji (Genji Monogatari) was written a thousand years ago, it was just a Japanese tale of romance, court life and politics — a time before samurai, haiku, sushi, ninja and Hello Kitty. It was a time of peace and tranquility. The capital of Japan (present-day Kyoto) was called Heian-kyo – peace and tranquility capital. Tokyo, the present-day capital, would not be built for five hundred years.

Genji is often considered the world’s first novel and still read today. It became more than a romantic tale. It is an integral part of Japanese culture—art, poetry, card games, video games, plays, movies and manga. It is even pictured on money. The book has been considered a good influence, a bad influence, and even banned. Google Genji and you will get three quarter million hits in English alone.

______________________________________________________________

With undergraduate and graduate degrees in East Asian history, Lynn B. Connor planned to be an academic. That idea was short lived. She realized that sharing stories of other times and places with children (and grownups, too) is what she enjoyed. Living in Japan for two years and then being a guide (and training guides) at the Chinese and Japanese gardens in Portland, Oregon, increased her understanding of how stories can provide windows on other cultures.  Her translations of T’ang dynasty poems were published by Poet Lore, and LanSu Chinese Garden in Portland published her first book, The Stones and the Poet. Her stories have appeared in several literary journals, and “The Tea Master” was posted on Stone Bridge Press’ Cafe.

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The Triumph

By  Nickolas Urpí 

 “Memento mori…”

Whispers slave whispers throngs bells jangling like the inconsistent shouts of the masses of people shouting “io triumphe io triumphe” purple purple purple burning of torches choking on smoke flooding nostrils incendiary

I had consented to let the soldiers burn the huts as they looted the thatched homes in the city as was customary of the time everyone always burns as is their right the right of the conquered is it not so?

“Of course it is so” I had said to myself with the slopping of boots across the muddied ground the same shouting bursting in my ears “There is no other way”

“Imperator! Imperator!” Calvinus the procession like a long snake winding its way up through the Forum heading directly to the Capitoline choking the streets the throngs of people shouting shouts shouts shouts repeat repeat repeat the hard cobblestones swallowing the noise the soldiers red glimmering bronze beaming like ten thousand suns painful to the eyes “To the Gauls came the torch, from the steps of his porch, the enemy was sprawled, by our general who’s bald!” reach for the top of my head, feel the empty spaces and the laurel wreath crinkling beneath my hot fingers in the sun the golden cloak at my feet and the studded sandals the laurel wreath adorning the son of Jupiter the red paint of Mars clinging to my face the red clay the statues of the heroes lining the procession, gilded and adorned with luscious paints brilliant colors dancing in the sun’s cascading lights—

“Memento mori…”

The statues in the golden beaming of the sun—

“Your father triumphed twice in his lifetime,” they had said. “Your grandfather fought alongside Quintus Fabius Maximus in repelling Hannibal. He died in Zama. Of course you will go to war and defeat numerous enemies,” they had said this, encircling me in the atrium of my own house, my bulla my childhood medallion that had felt so light I had never truly felt it feeling so weighty as it was removed from me the wax faces of my ancestors peering out at me from around the room “Of course you will”

“Must I?” I had said. “Will I?”

The light from atop the Capitoline the sun’s fingers clinging to the Temple of Jupiter the greatest and best the greatest and best the shouts from the adoring crowd having earned their approbation and love and respect the way the ancestors had always done it the way of the ancestors the way of our fathers lining the streets watching the procession from atop their marble columns the fingers of their ambition poking the clouds Clavinus finding his name etched in stone across the way from his father my father the great Clavinus who took eight hundred prisoners had slain fifty thousand in battle brought back three million sesterces to the public coffers the great Calvinus who weareth the laurels of Jupiter atop his four horse chariot white as the day and pure as the light

“Memento mori…”

Fifty thousand slain the prisoners bound by hemp to the carriage which pulls them thus to their imminent death or saledeath their eyes shadow cast and downfallen beneath the banners “Here are the captured prisoners of war from Britain” prisoners of war war war war

They had lost. Our glinting steel dulled and bloodied—dried up in the hot sun and cold wind the panoramic vista of a fresh lake with the reeking of severed limbs and drowning corpses in the evening glare. The golden sunset had faded into the crimson settling of the glare lingering beyond the horizon’s threshold.

“The town lies just beyond the ridge. They would have evacuated by now. Shall I give the order to burn the houses?” he repeated to me. It seemed as though my tongue had been pinned to the roof of my mouth the way the spear had been driven into that man’s head and split his skull.

“That is what is always done,” I had replied to him. The smoke from the burning huts beyond that thin invisible veil that separates what is seen from what is unseen.

The smoke rose up and filled my nostrils again the procession winding its way around the city like the curdling of milk the prisoners watching their precious metals piled atop each other like their comrades’ burnt corpses the savoring taste of defeat’s bitter dust lingering on their tongues are they not men too? The reds and the purples washing the sea of crowds shouting and shouting How could I not have said “That is what is always done” for it was always done it was the way of the ancestors

the ancestors’ watched atop the corpses of wasted quinqueremes and

the cheering and the shouting

Shouting “Calvinus!” my name the men marching onwards with their glimmering helmets the colossal monoliths of the ancestors peering down and gravely sending their approbation between the dying light of day and the ascension of the Capitoline rising before the heads of the four horses the smell of cypress trees congratula—

“Memento mori…”

the cypress boughs

“Your father would be proud if he could see you today,” they said as the dirt began to pile atop him beneath the marble slab which listed his achievements which I did not care to read as I had memorized them long ago against the death written on his face when he became a wax mask to hang next to grandfather. “You will of course be consul and follow in his footsteps and slay many foes.”

“Must I?” I had said.

“Of course you must,” they had replied in unison.

I must have then no choice in the matter it was expected it was the way of the ancestors then the smoke ripping and tearing the water from the ducts in my eyes running down the cheek and mingling with the redness of my painted faces Mars’ and mine faces the shouting and cheering mixed with the cries of anguish and death and the smell of burning burning burning

“Is that not what the old generals had done?” he had asked, his armor spattered with the boiling blood of a Gaul.

“Then I must,” I had said. Though perhaps I could—

No perhaps only way the ancestors had done the cheering throngs of crowd singing as the ancestors fell behind in the procession but continued to glare casting their shadow over the crowd and I musn’t the son of Jupiter the face of Mars the mighty conqueror of the barbaric west laid waste the enemies of the people of Rome Calvinus the magnif—

“Memento mori…”

I must I must I must the way of the ancestors there is no shame no shame no shame no shame the lingering redness of Mars across the battlefield night is falling hold onto the horses tighter the reins the army marching in red the crimson son the rock falling upwards cannot go upwards can it? No it cannot

“A wise man once said the rock can never be trained to move upwards, no matter how many times it has been thrown,” they had said to me when I still had my bulla.

“Why not?” I had asked.

“That is simply the way it is done,” they had said to me.

“But what if it wants to go up?” I had asked them.

“It does not matter what it wants—it cannot choose when everything tells it to fall down,” they had said to me. “Besides… a rock cannot want.”

“Let them have their pillage. I cannot stop them. I must let them do what is… as expected,” I said to him whilst my knees soaked in the freshly strewn lake lingering in the dying sun with fifty thousand lives extinguished before the second began to be counted.

“A marvelous victory.”

A marvelous victory resounding with the name Calvinus and the thoughts of shimmering gold armor adorning the triumphal column with his immortal visage atop it—

“Memento mori…”

The sheep was led up to the altars the knife in my hand gleaming like the sword of Mars hanging above us all perhaps there is no expectation

But their faces are looking at me, looking at me with the grave approval of the ancestors to place this knife into the neck of this beast perhaps there is a—but no—there is only the way of the ancestors I must I could not have

I could not have the blood is dripping on my hands

“There are fifty thousand dead and eight hundred prisoners still alive mostly women and children.” The camp sat upon the hill looking over the field, the rancid and pungent grotesqueness of death sifting through the night breezes.

“The men forgot to place a barricade around the camp,” I had said.

“But there are no more enem—… yes, imperator I will see to it that it is done,” he had said. “The town was burned to the ground, as you wanted, imperator.”

“As I wanted?” I had said. “But, of course, that is always done. I could not more avoid it than a lion change his roar.”

The night was drifting away again, the moonlight pale and condescending

Of course there was no alternative the choice was not mine the choice was not mine to make not mine no choice the way of the ancestors compel compel push push force force like a blacksmith’s hammer to anvil the rock must fall the rock must fall yes it always falls

“Memento mori…”

men are not rocks

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Nickolas Urpí is the author of the literary war fantasy novel The Legend of Borach and has been published in HCE Review literary journal, Soft Cartel magazine, Ripples in Space magazine, and The Fall Line magazine. His writings fuse his studies of ancient history, literature, and philosophy with his crafted prose to immerse the reader in the world of his fiction through vivid settings and characters. An alumnus of the University of Virginia, he resides in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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